I swear I wasn't raised in a barn, that period between 5 and 8 wherein I thought getting up at 5am to help Grandpa milk was cool notwithstanding. Eavesdropping is wrong. I get that, morally. It's never one of those things you mean to do. I'm hoping there a moral difference between intentionally listening in on something you're not meant to hear and overhearing someone's conversation because you're at the next table in the tiny café. If only because it might keep me out of some 'failed to mind her own beeswax' purgatory.
So let's not call it 'eavesdropping' and instead go with the more innocuous 'couldn't help but overhear'.
Now, I started this post Thursday night, like a good blogger should, so I could schedule it to post for you first thing this morning. A little voice (besides the one saying 'go to bed') told me to wait - to finish this post on Friday AM. Now I know why.
I freely admit that the tea shop is where I do most of my - er - overhearing. Yesterday, it was a pair of women writing plays next to me.
"Is Madeline Island too obscure a reference?" one of the gals asked the other.
"What? What is it?" her friend returned.
"It's an island!"
"Never heard of it. Where is it?"
"I'll take that as a 'yes'. It's an island in Wisconsin."
Her friend howled with laughter, choking out something akin to, "Wisconsin? ALL of Wisconsin is too fucking obscure!"
I don't think I can legally quote the shouting match that resulted. In this case, it wasn't the really colorful words that mattered to me. The workers were, naturally, doing what they'd been paid to do, so they were defensive and inclined to ignore the guy hanging out of the second story window.
He wasn't about to be ignored. He bellowed, full-throated, no holds barred. Rage, yes. But the ragged edge of a heavy metal singer in his voice made it clear he was in extremity. When he slammed the casement shut, I thought that was the end of it.
He'd put on a pair of jeans before he came storming out of the apartment building door to threaten to call the cops. It didn't stop the leaf-blower. As he turned to go back into the building, he had to pass me. I saw no anger in his face. Just weariness.
"Do you live here, now, too?" he asked me.
"No," I said. "I come here to work at the tea shop."
"What time do they open?"
"Eight," I said.
"Those assholes," he muttered, tossing a glare over his shoulder at the workers. "Tried to tell me they started at 8. They started at 7:40."
I showed him my cell phone. "It's not 8, but I know that outside the city limits, noisy stuff can start at 7 on weekdays. I don't know about inside the city."
He slumped, nodded and said, "I'm just so tired of not getting a full night's sleep."
Not earth shattering conflict, or anything, but you know I'm already sitting here trying to work out what this guy does that means he's so distraught by being awakened before 8AM. Sure, sure, he could work in a night shift somewhere, but just from having witnessed his anger and despair, I'm thinking serial killer up until 2AM dismembering a victim. Or maybe a spy of some kind who has to catch his rest between missions to save humanity.
Only rarely is it WHAT someone is saying that catches my ear - though I have a list of things I've overheard. I keep those close. They're story prompts. Most of the time, it's tone that catches my attention. Conflict is compelling and when I hear it, I get sucked into actually listening - not because I want into someone else's business. Necessarily. It can be a glimpse into the life of a character, but more than that, I'm interested in what creates conflict between people. What do real people argue about? How do they express themselves? How can I use not the specific conflict, but the tone, the way someone comes at an argument?
The moral of the story seems to be, don't sit next to me at the tea shop. Cause your conversation may be the black hole from which my attention simply cannot escape. You will end up in a book.